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55 Plus: It’s time for a radical rethinking about age

It surprises many that the human life span has almost doubled since the beginning the 20th century. Back then, the average life span of an American was less than 50 years old — 47 years, to be exact. Only a small percentage of Americans lived to their 85th birthday.

During the 1930s, medical science made valuable breakthroughs. Vaccines and antibiotics were being discovered, as was the importance of good nutrition. Cures for the epidemic of yellow fever had been discovered. All this dramatically increased the life span of Americans to about 60 years old. Still, not many folks made it to 85, and they were rarely healthy or active.

By the 1950s, much had changed. There had been an explosion of knowledge in medicine, both in the treatment of illness and advances in surgery. The invention of pacemakers, the new techniques of open-heart surgery, and the discovery of such miracle drugs as penicillin allowed Americans to survive illnesses and injuries that previously would have been fatal. A vaccine for polio had been discovered, allowing many children to escape death or disfigurement.

Statistics greatly improved for those living to 85. More were healthy and active. Some played golf regularly; many others took regular walks. The growth in scientific knowledge and medical procedures also allowed people to be more active and involved with others as they aged. Assisted living and nursing homes helped extend the American human life span.

Unfortunately, these facts have not yet sunk in for business leaders or the public. People as young as 50 find it hard to find a good job — or keep the one they have; there is even less management interest in hiring someone over 60. But look around: People in their 70s and 80s are still working.

The average American mind hasn’t caught up with the reality of both medical science and the extension of the human life span. But as thousands of people turn 60, 70 and beyond on a daily basis, the demographic is becoming harder to ignore.

Within the next decade, people will be forced to readjust their perception of the age at which someone may be “too old.” The last barrier to acceptance of the extended human life span are dementias — but medical science is hard at work to find ways to prevent brain decline. When it does, human life span will take another jump. Wait and see.

— Wina Sturgeon

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